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“I Gave Him Barks and Saltpeter...”
Medicine was primitive and their knowledge of it limited, but in their hazardous journey to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark lost only one patient
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
It is worthy of remark that this was the first child which this woman had boarn, and as is common in such cases her labour was tedious and the pain violent; Mr. Jessome [René Jessaume, a Frenchman the expedition hired as an interpreter in the Mandan country] informed me that he had frequently administered a small portion of the rattle of the rattlesnake, which he assured me had never failed to produce the desired effect, that of hastening the birth of the child; having the rattle of a snake by me I gave it to him and he administered two rings of it to the woman broken in small pieces with the fingers and added to a small quantity of water. Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine, but I was informed that she had not taken it more than ten minutes before she brought forth, perhaps this remedy may be worthy of future experiments, but I must confess that I want faith as to its efficacy.
The child was christened Jean-Baptiste, though nicknamed Pomp (short for Pompey). Later Clark called a prominent rock formation on the Yellowstone, Pompey’s Pillar. Pomp, with his mother and father, travelled with the party from Fort Mandan to the Pacific and back. He was seriously ill only once, when he was fifteen months old. On May 22, 1806, beside the Clearwater River, as the expedition waited for the melting of the snows in the Bitterroot Mountains, Lewis wrote:
Charbono’s Child is very ill this evening; he is cuting teeth, and for several days past has had a violent lax, which having suddonly sloped he was attacked with a high fever and his neck and throat are much swolen this evening. We gave him a doze of creem of tartar and flour of sulpher and applyed a poltice of boiled onions to his neck as warm as he could well bear it.
Most probably Pomp’s trouble was tonsillitis complicated by an infected cervical lymph gland. Lewis and Clark brought him around using not only cream of tartar, flowers of sulphur, and onion poultices but also clysters (enemas) and a plaster of basilicon which was, in Clark’s words, “a plaster of sarve [salve] made of the rozen of the long leafed pine, Beeswax and Bears oil mixed.”
Cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate) is both diuretic and cathartic. It is best known as an ingredient of baking powder. Combining it with flowers of sulphur, an excellent fungicide and insecticide, would not have altered its effect. Lewis and Clark probably would have used plain warm water, or water with soap, in the enemas they gave Pomp.
Two months after the party left Fort Mandan, Sacagawea herself took sick and nearly died. Her illness, which neither Lewis nor Clark could positively diagnose, occurred on that stretch of the Missouri immediately above the mouth of the Marias River, in presentday Montana. Since Lewis had gone ahead to look for the Great Falls of the Missouri, Clark had charge of her case at first. He seems to have had no idea what was wrong with her, but he was attentive and did all he could. On the first day he bled her, and on the next, her condition having failed to improve, he bled her again. The operation, he noted, “appeared to be of great service to her.” On the fourth day he gave her “a doste of salts,” which seemed to be of no help at all, for the next morning she was “excessively bad” and her case “somewhat dangerous.” She complained of abdominal pain and was “low spirited.” Clark applied a bark poultice to “her region.”
When Lewis rejoined the main party, he found Sacagawea’s pulse rapid, irregular, and barely perceptible, and her condition “attended with strong nervous symptoms, that of the twitching of the fingers and leaders of the arm.” He immediately took charge. He continued the “cataplasms [poultices] of bark and laudnumn” instituted by Clark and ordered a cask of mineral water brought from a spring on the opposite side of the river. He had great faith in the efficacy of this water, since it was highly impregnated with sulphur and “precisely similar to that of Bowyer’s Sulphur Spring in Virginia.” He had Sacagawea drink freely of it and by evening was gratified to find her pulse stronger and more regular, her nervous symptoms somewhat abated, and her abdominal pain less severe. He believed that her trouble “originated principally from an obstruction of the mensis [menstrual fluid] in consequence of taking cold.”
The next morning Sacagawea was so far improved that she asked for food and ate as heartily as Lewis would permit of “broiled buffaloe well seasoned with pepper and salt and rich soope of the same meat.” To the medicine already prescribed, Lewis now added fifteen drops of oil of vitriol, and considered her in “a fair way to recovery.” And she no doubt would have been if her husband, who had been given specific orders to watch her, had prevented her from downing a meal of white apples and dried fish, as a result of which her pains and fever returned. After employing army language to tell Charbonneau what he thought of him, Lewis went to work on his patient again, prescribing “broken dozes of diluted nitre [saltpeter] untill it produced perspiration and at 10 P.M. 30 drops of laudnumn.” The latter was, of course, a tincture of opium, widely used in those days to deaden pain and induce sleep. Lewis’ customary dose of thirty drops, about two cubic centimeters or one-half teaspoon, was not a big one; its effect would probably be similar to that of a quarter-grain injection of morphine.